History of the Wildlife Research Laboratory
Hidden away on the south side of Gainesville is the Wildlife Research Laboratory (WRL). Located under a canopy of Spanish moss-draped oak trees on the northern edge of Paynes Prairie Preserve, sine 1974 the WRL has served as headquarters for scientists and support staff conducting research on a variety of wildlife and habitats throughout Florida.
The WRL is a major field office of the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI). As such, the facility and its staff members play an integral role in carrying out the FWRI Mission Statement: Through effective research and technical knowledge, we provide timely information and guidance to protect, conserve and manage Florida’s fish and wildlife resources. Biologists conduct individual research and monitoring projects, and participate in cooperative work with other state, federal and university personnel.
Facility, Staff and Research Projects
The movement to establish a wildlife research entity within the then Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission (GFC) began in 1964 when Lovett Williams, a regional wildlife biologist in Lake City, and Dale Crider, a waterfowl biologist in West Palm Beach, discussed combining their research efforts into a single headquarters. Later that year, the two moved into a Gainesville office and established the Wildlife Research Project within the GFC Game Management Division. Gainesville was chosen so researchers would have access to the University of Florida library and faculty.
At that time the development of a research facility was a new concept for state wildlife agencies, which usually directed research and information needs to universities, cooperative fish and wildlife research units, or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. However, a group of future-minded biologists foresaw the need for the GFC to take a proactive approach to researching and monitoring the wildlife resources of Florida.
In the mid-1960s, the original staff of three biologists, Williams, Crider and Mike Fogerty, and several field technicians began working out of rented offices, concentrating research on Florida game species such as deer, turkeys and waterfowl. During the next decade, the number of staff increased and scope of research broadened to include projects focusing on a variety of habitats and nongame species. Projects during the ’60s and ’70s included research on alligators, sandhill cranes and the Cross Florida Barge Canal. Staff also carried out the capture, holding and shipment of brown pelicans for restocking efforts in Louisiana, following a disastrous pesticide (Endrin) spill in the Mississippi River.
In 1972, the GFC sub-leased from the Florida Department of Natural Resources (now the Department of Environmental Protection) 9.4-acres on the northern edge of Paynes Prairies State Preserve. Staff and equipment moved to this location in 1974, and the current WRL became a functioning facility. Initially, the compound consisted only of four small, single-wide trailers and a few storage sheds. Construction of a permanent building began in 1976 with financial assistance from the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration; the WRL building was completed in early 1977.
That same year the GFC Game Management Division became the Division of Wildlife, consisting of the Bureau of Wildlife Research and Bureau of Wildlife Resources. Additional staff joined the WRL during the late ’70s, ’80s and ’90s as Endangered Species Act Section 6 funds and Nongame Wildlife Trust Fund appropriations became available. Staff eventually outgrew the original WRL building, and an annex known as the west wing was completed in 1988 to provide offices for expanding nongame species research efforts. When the GFC’s Bureau of Wildlife Research and Nongame Wildlife Section merged in 1997, WRL employees were designated to either the Bureau of Wildlife Diversity Conservation or Bureau of Wildlife Resources.
In 1999, the GFC was merged into the newly formed FWC. After reorganization of all FWC divisions in 2004, most WRL employees were assigned to one of the following FWRI sections: Wildlife Research, Ecosystem Assessment and Restoration, or Information Science and Management. A few employees work in the FWC’s Division of Habitat and Species Conservation. Again, with change came growth, and a modular office building was added on the WRL’s south grounds in 2011 to accommodate the staff increases.
In 2013, the Wildlife Research Section Leader position was moved from Tallahassee to the WRL.
In 2014, The Board of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission established the Lovett E. Williams Jr. Wildlife Research Lab at 1105 SW Williston Road, Gainesville, in honor of William’s contributions to the Commission during his 24 years with the Commission.
Current WRL staff includes approximately 26 full time employees and 20-25 seasonal or temporary personnel. Staff biologists specialize in various research areas, including birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and ecology. Research efforts are also supported by statisticians, veterinarians, a computer analyst, a GIS analyst and staff assistants. The current complex includes offices, equipment storage facilities, a necropsy room, a wood shop, a green house, an alligator egg incubator and nursery, and various structures that serve as wildlife holding pens.
The smaller enclosures have housed alligators, geese, hogs, bobcats, bears and sandhill cranes. The largest on-site enclosure originally was constructed to temporarily maintain brown pelicans for the Louisiana restocking project during the early ’70s. It also served as the final holding site for the last six male dusky seaside sparrows; recently it was used as a rehabbing site for injured and sick Florida panthers before their release back into the wild, and most recently as a holding site for various other wildlife. The WRL, however, is not open to the public for wildlife viewing.
In addition to the Gainesville location, wildlife research staff has established satellite field offices in Eustis for alligator research and in Naples for panther research.
Biologists at the WRL provide a variety of products and services to FWC staff, other agencies and the public. Over the decades, wildlife researchers have focused on the natural history, ecology, diseases, contaminants and population genetics of numerous imperiled species. Staff has also studied other wildlife species at terrestrial, freshwater and marine-estuarine sites throughout the state. This research provides the basis of information for the development of management and conservation plans and actions that protect Florida’s wildlife resources.
Staff makes research data available as in-house reports and in published materials, including scientific journals, brochures, magazine articles and Web content. Biologists also present scientific findings at professional and public meetings. They share expertise by serving on state and national committees and management teams that address conservation needs of wildlife. Staff also shares its research with school classes and public organizations.